The fatcat trial of the year

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

For an inside look at what makes Philadelphia politics tick, the corruption trial of union leader John Dougherty and City Councilman Bobby Henon is a godsend. Cutting through the campaign slogans, the trial shows how power works behind closed doors. Luckily for the public, the current corruption trial is only the first of two trials, with the second focusing on Dougherty and embezzlement charges. More tea is simmering on the stove, waiting to be spilled.

What’s holding Philadelphia back? What problems work, like a cancer, on the body politic? Allow the federal prosecutors to explain it all. A few lessons can be drawn so far:

  1. The power of unionism has bred corruption in this city. 

The acts alleged in the trial range from the petty to the truly egregious. Getting a refunded payment after you get towed for double-parking. Calling a hearing to harass a corporation so contract negotiations go your way. Demanding L&I issue a stop-work order to prevent an MRI machine from getting installed at a children’s hospital. 

It turns out that having union donations flowing into your political war chest goes a long way. Many of Councilman Henon’s corruption accusations are rooted in his connection to IBEW Local 98.

The prosecutor’s case against Henon shows him as either too intimidated to go against union wishes for the greater good of the city, or too comfortable with an extra $70,000 salary in his pocket thanks to a no-show job for the union. Organized labor is a big deal in Philadelphia, as Dougherty’s lawyer Henry Hockeimer noted last Thursday, as noted in the solid coverage of the trial by WHYY. Unfortunately for the people of the city, there are few restraints on labor power to control government action to their advantage.

  1. Local politics is less about civic duty and more about personal gain.

The Democratic dominance of Philadelphia has eliminated political competition. With Republicans in this city either too weak-willed or too incompetent to lead a push for reform, the Democratic Party serves as a cash machine for the unprincipled rather than a party for the people. Sure, there are some reformers who care deeply about making Philadelphia a better place, but they have an uphill battle to undermine those like Bobby Henon on City Council. 

Given that City Councilmembers have a base salary of $130,000, and no law stops them from holding a second job, side hustles can become very lucrative. Lowering Council salaries may be necessary, or at least prohibiting side hustles. Public disclosure isn’t making our politicians any more honest, just more daring in graft.

  1. The bullshit will continue until voters make it stop.

If local voters don’t demand politicians do better, they’ll continue to be pathetic. The nationalization of politics, where we have to listen to the candidates for local dogcatcher pontificate about how much they love or hate Donald Trump, has had a horrendous effect on local governance. Why should anyone care what a local politician thinks about a national issue? Focus on the job at hand: public transit, housing prices, crime, economic opportunity and equity—the small issues are the big ones in local politics. National talking points distract from asking why no one answers when you call 911 in this city, or why criminals walk free after assaulting someone.

It shouldn’t take a federal investigation to shake people out of their stupor in this city. 

Philadelphia deserves better leaders than the corrupt who think only about political donations and a cushy job. We have a decades-high murder rate, a growing rent crisis, and a city struggling to move beyond poverty and dirty streets. It’s morally abhorrent that some City Councilmembers cater to union jabronis settling scores while ignoring their duty to work for the common good.

Is this the best that the city’s Democratic machine can produce? Why have so many other City Councilmembers (aside from Maria Quiñones-Sánchez) remained silent about Henon and not called for his resignation? The best-case scenario here is that our city is run by cowards. 

“All our municipal governments are more or less bad, and all our people are optimists,” muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in 1903. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.” It’s contented, he noted, because “Philadelphia is proud; good people there defend corruption and boast of their machine.”

Perhaps one day, Steffens will be proved wrong. With any luck, led by good people of character who want a better city and not a better paycheck, that day will come soon.

  • Anthony Hennen

    Anthony Hennen is executive editor of Philadelphia Weekly. He is managing editor of expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Previously, he was managing editor at the James G. Martin Center, a higher ed think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anthony grew up on the Ohio/West Virginia border. @anthonyhennen.

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